Noh Kyogen

The Art of Japanese Theatre
By Bobbi Parry

he average TV sitcom lasts 30 minutes, with a commercial break after 11. This does not do much to prepare audiences for that three hour, highly theatrical production of Hamlet they’re supposed to enjoy. It does, however, make the hour-long, highly visceral plays of the Japanese theatre tradition much more accessible and relevant.

Not that the plays aren’t accessible and relevant on their own. Across the country, the interest in the highly theatrical, non-realistic Eastern forms of theatre is growing. The plays allow Western theatre and actors an added perspective, not only on their art, but on their world.

Early morning in the Performing Arts Building, University of Utah theatre professor Jerry Gardner leads his class through a series of warm-up exercises. He makes jokes about politics and discusses the ancient Japanese tradition of the warrior/actor. It’s halfway through the first semester of the Eastern Theatre Arts, a class designed to give a background in the history and basics of Eastern (this semester, Japanese) theatre. By all accounts, the class is successful. “You get to experience several learning styles,” Gardner said—not only movement and acting, but a historical context as well.

Today the class studies the movements of Kyogen. There is a difference, he says, between the movements of Kyogen and that of another, more dramatic form, Noh. His feet glide smoothly along the floor as he discusses the difference in gestures—foot motion stays the same, but the gestures of Kyogen are far broader, more comical.

The class divides into groups to perform a scene involving two servants and a master. Someone bangs a drum as the students take their places and read the formal sounding dialogue. While the master moves in the dignified Noh style, the servants skitter along to a staccato beat, bowing their heads in submission and running into each other in their rush to please their master. It’s an over-the-top sort of physical comedy, a stark contrast to the master, who seems to take an eternity to cross the room.

In fact, much of Japanese theatre may seem a bit over-the-top and slow-paced to Western audiences that are used to fast-paced realism. Japanese theatre uses masks, puppets, drums, stylized motions and overlapping dialogue in its drama. Noh and Kyogen plays are frequently about mythology, ghosts and demons. Going to the theatre in Japan can mean four or five hours of Noh drama, interspersed with bits of Kyogen comedy to lighten the mood.

But the theatre may be more accessible than you first think. Richard Scharine, who provides the historical perspective, draws parallels between Noh and Kyogen and Western forms. “The Noh is parodied in the Kyogen,” he said. It’s a form of cultural stress release; both the Catholic religion and the world of Ancient Greece had similar forms.

In addition to the Noh and Kyogen, the class covers Kabuki and Bunraku. If Noh and Kyogen came out of the aristocracy and warrior classes, then Kabuki is the drama of the common people. It came out of the streets and deals in things like merchants and courtesans, “almost like the soap operas…a more domesticated form of drama,” Scharine said. Bunraku, the puppet theatre (not your childhood puppets, but dramatic, full-sized creations) encompasses all of its counterparts.

Kyogen and Noh completed their repertoire about 600 years ago, meaning traditional, modern actors perform essentially the same things their counterparts did half a millenium ago.

And then there’s the matter of Butoh. It’s nowhere to be found on the syllabus, but if you talk to Gardner and fellow professor Glen Brown (who also teaches the class) about Eastern theatre long enough, they will talk about Butoh. Even though they don’t formally teach it, it’s very much included in their instruction of everything else. “It’s what we do,” Brown said with a shrug.

But Butoh is a different story, one that could take up an entire class by itself. As for the rest of Japanese theatre, it’s very much a reflection of Japanese cultural history, Scharine said. Kyogen and Noh completed their repertoire about 600 years ago, meaning traditional, modern actors perform essentially the same things their counterparts did half a millennium ago. This says a great deal about the Japanese, he continued, about the importance of tradition and group discipline in their culture.

You can see the centuries of tradition in the highly stylized movements of the actors. All of the Japanese theatre studied in the classes uses the mastery of the form as a means to create. The study of the movements gives the actor a form to work within, and the structure of that is where the creativity comes from.

“There’s freedom in the specificity of it. Many things happen in the space of nothingness,” Gardner said.
Even the relatively young Butoh plays with this idea.

“The purpose of Butoh is to strip you bare, get you into a meditative state,” said Alyssum Hutson, a junior in the Actor Training Program who performed in last year’s production of “Butoh MacBeth” and has studied with Butoh masters. In Butoh, actors create a dance based upon an image—they must work their bodies to the point of exhaustion before beginning to develop their dance, she said. The exhaustion allows you freedom to develop in different ways.

Butoh roots itself in much more recent Japanese history. It came about in the aftermath of World War II, “out of a desire to move in an opposite direction of what was occurring…an influx of Western ideology,” Gardner said. Artists rejected the traditional forms and delved deeper into their country’s mythology and their own psyches for inspiration. What resulted was like nothing ever experienced in Japanese culture.

“We all have a bit of darkness in us, but society says it’s not good. You don’t do, you don’t say,” Gardner said. "Where does that energy go? [Butoh] wants to free that energy, give it a voice.”

One word shows up frequently in descriptions of Butoh: grotesque. While other forms of Japanese theatre seem to deal in a highly controlled set of movements and performances, Butoh revels in its own spontaneity and darkness. Performers are almost naked, bodies whitened with powder. Watching it, you can’t help but be amazed at the sheer physicality of it. Dancers twist and contort themselves with abandon, everything is done with the body. Traditionally, no words are used.

Brown wrote and co-directed “Butoh MacBeth” at the Babcock Theatre two years ago. It was the first production of its kind in the West. Brown used virtually none of the original script, choosing instead to create his own, based on the themes of Shakespeare’s play. Looking out into the audience during the performance, “99 percent of it was [in] complete rapture.” People held their breath and didn’t breathe again until the actors did, he said.

As for the actors, “every night was different,” Hutson said. “There were places…we had to get to differently.”

In order to succeed in the work he describes as primitive, shamanistic and ritualistic, actors in the play had to become like priests, turn themselves inside out, said Gardner, who co-directed with Brown and Linda Brown. “They needed to connect with their own spirits.”

Gardner often emphasizes the connection between spiritualism and Eastern theatre. He demonstrates how Noh would represent crying with two simple gestures—his head drops and he lifts one hand to his brow, stiffly. If the emotion were very strong, he says, he would use two hands. Slow, deliberate movement is part of the Noh style, and it also points to its origins. “It has a deep connection to the Zen Buddhist tradition and the whole concept of stillness and serenity,” Gardner said.

He makes the same point about Bunraku, the puppet theatre. Puppets require three operators, one master and two attendants. This represents harmony and unity because everyone has to work together to make the puppet perform.

Sometimes the theatre has ties not only with the spirituality of the culture, but with the history as well. When he’s not teaching it, Scharine attends the class with the students. Following Gardner’s warm-up exercise one morning, something dawned on him. “I suddenly realized this exercise is a martial arts exercise. It reflects when the original performers were Samurai.”

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